Candide: Or, All for the Best is Voltaire’s most widely known work and one of the most widely read pieces of literature written in the French language. Voltaire invented the philosophical tale as a means to convey his own ideas and, at the same time, entertain his readers with satirical wit and ironic innuendo. Candide (the name refers to purity and frankness) is the tale’s main character. He embodies the philosophical idea of optimism that Voltaire intends to oppose.
As the story begins, Candide is forced to leave Wesphalia because he has been caught kissing the baron’s daughter, the beautiful Cunegonde. Candide is driven from the splendid castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, where Doctor Pangloss has been Candide’s tutor and has taught him that all is well in this “best of all possible worlds.” Little time passes before the naïve Candide finds himself conscripted into the Bulgarian army. As a soldier, he witnesses firsthand the terrible atrocities of war. Escaping to Holland, he miraculously encounters Pangloss, who is himself in a pitiful physical state. From the ever-optimistic philosopher, Candide learns that his former home in Germany has been burned to the ground and that all of those inside have been massacred by the advancing Bulgarian army.
Voltaire continues to narrate his story with a cascade of adventures. He nonetheless keeps close to the principal reason for telling his tale: discrediting the metaphysical idea that all that happens on earth has been determined by Providence and therefore must be judged as being for the good of humankind. Pangloss, who has lost part of his nose and one eye to syphilis, continues to insist that all is going well in spite of overwhelming adversity. Candide and Pangloss travel to Lisbon, where they arrive just in time to experience the famous earthquake of 1755. Not only are they caught in Portugal during this natural disaster, but they also become embroiled in the Inquisition. Only by the reappearance and intervention of Cunegonde is Candide saved (Pangloss is a presumed victim of the Inquisition). In rescuing Cunegonde, however, Candide must kill an Israelite and the Grand Inquisitor.
Candide, Cunegonde, and an old woman (the daughter of Pope Urban X) flee to South America. Even there, they are tracked by the agents of the Inquisition; Candide and Cunegonde must separate or risk being burned at the stake. Candide takes refuge in Paraguay, the kingdom of the Jesuits, where “Los Padres have everything and the people have nothing.” Candide comes upon Cunegonde’s brother among the Jesuit leaders. They quarrel because Candide, in spite of his humble origins, insists on marrying the young baron’s sister. Candide wounds him, apparently mortally, and again takes flight with his valet and companion Cacambo.
Throughout all the journeys of Candide, who next discovers Eldorado (the city of gold and precious jewels), Voltaire delights in attacking the excesses of humankind—from the brutality of wars to the ignoble institution of the Inquisition. In order to emphasize tolerance and moderation, Voltaire presents characters that are immediately identified as representing extreme philosophical positions: Pangloss (who reappears at the end of the story in Constantinople) holds tenaciously to an absurd optimism, and Martin (Candide’s companion on his trip back to Europe and on to Constantinople) affirms with equal stubbornness that there is little virtue and happiness in a world filled with evil.
While in Venice, Candide learns that his once-beautiful Cunegonde is now washing dishes on a riverbank for a prince in Turkey. From Cacambo, he hears that Cunegonde has even grown ugly and ill-tempered. Still, being an honorable man, Candide intends to marry Mlle Cunegonde, and he sets off immediately for the Turkish city. While en route, he finds Pangloss and Cunegonde’s brother (resuscitated) among the galley slaves on the Turkish boat. Candide still possesses some of the diamonds that he carried away from Eldorado and is able to buy his friends’ freedom. As chance would have it, all the characters of this tale end up living together on a small vegetable farm somewhere on the outskirts of Constantinople. Candide’s money is exhausted, Cunegonde grows more unendurable, Cacambo curses his fate as a vegetable seller, Pangloss despairs because he is not teaching in a good German university, and Martin persists in seeing humankind caught in either the throes of distress or the doldrums of lethargy. Candide does not agree, but he no longer asserts anything. Instead of arguing metaphysical and moral questions, he heeds the advice of an old man who tells him, “work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” From this lesson, Candide concludes “that we should cultivate our gardens.” In the end, the little farm yields well, and all eat candied citrons and pistachios. Voltaire ends the tale, on a note of neither pessimism nor optimism, with his characters working and living in peace together.
Candide, the illegitimate son of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s sister, is born in Westphalia. Dr. Pangloss, his tutor and a devout follower of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, teaches him metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology and assures his pupil that this is the best of all possible worlds. Cunegonde, the daughter of the baron, kisses Candide one day behind a screen, whereupon Candide is expelled from the noble baron’s household.
Impressed into the army of the king of Bulgaria, Candide deserts during a battle between the king of Bulgaria and the king of Abares. Later, he is befriended by James the Anabaptist. He also meets his old friend, Dr. Pangloss, now a beggar. James, Pangloss, and Candide start for Lisbon. Their ship is wrecked in a storm off the coast of Portugal. James is drowned, but Candide and Pangloss swim to shore just as an earthquake shakes the city. The rulers of Lisbon, both secular and religious, decide to punish the people whose wickedness brings about the earthquake, and Candide and Pangloss are among the accused. Pangloss is hanged, and Candide is thoroughly whipped.
He is still smarting from his wounds when an old woman accosts Candide and tells him to have courage and to follow her. She leads him to a house where he is fed and clothed. Then Cunegonde appears. Candide is amazed because Pangloss told him that Cunegonde is dead. Cunegonde relates what happened to her since she last saw Candide. She is being kept by a Jew and an Inquisitor, but she holds both men at a distance. Candide kills the Jew and the Inquisitor when they come to see her.
Together with the old woman, Cunegonde and Candide flee to Cadiz, where they are robbed. In despair, they sail for Paraguay, where Candide hopes to enlist in the Spanish army then fighting the rebellious Jesuits. During the voyage, the old woman tells her story. They learn that she is the daughter of Pope Urban X and the princess of Palestrina.
The governor of Buenos Aires develops a great affection for Cunegonde and causes Candide to be accused of having committed robbery while still in Spain. Candide flees with his servant, Cacambo; Cunegonde and the old woman remain behind. When Candide decides to fight for the Jesuits, he learns that the commandant is Cunegonde’s brother. The brother will not hear of his sister’s marrying Candide. They quarrel, and Candide, fearing that he killed the brother, takes to the road with Cacambo once more. Shortly afterward, they are captured by the Oreillons, a tribe of savage Indians, but when Cacambo proves they are not Jesuits, the two are released. They travel on to Eldorado. There life is simple and perfect, but Candide is not happy because he misses Cunegonde.
At last he decides to take some of the useless jeweled pebbles and golden mud of Eldorado and return to Buenos Aires to search for Cunegonde. He and Cacambo start out with a hundred sheep laden with riches, but they lose all but two sheep. When Candide approaches a Dutch merchant and tries to arrange passage to Buenos Aires, the merchant sails away with all his money and treasures, leaving him behind. Cacambo then goes to Buenos Aires to find Cunegonde and take her to Venice to meet Candide. After many adventures, including a sea fight and the miraculous recovery of one of his lost sheep from a sinking ship, Candide arrives at Bordeaux. His intention is to go to Venice by way of Paris. Police arrest him in Paris, however, and Candide is forced to buy his freedom with diamonds. Later, he sails on a Dutch ship to Portsmouth, England, where he witnesses the execution of an English admiral. From Portsmouth he goes to Venice. There he finds no Cacambo and no Cunegonde. He does, however, meet Paquette, Cunegonde’s waiting maid. Shortly afterward, Candide encounters Cacambo, who is now a slave and who informs him that Cunegonde is in Constantinople. In the Venetian galley that carries them to Constantinople, Candide finds Pangloss and Cunegonde’s brother among the galley slaves. Pangloss relates that he miraculously escaped from his hanging in Lisbon because the bungling hangman was not able to tie a proper knot. Cunegonde’s brother tells how he survived the wound that Candide thought fatal. Candide buys both men from the Venetians and gives them their freedom.
When the group arrives at Constantinople, Candide buys the old woman and Cunegonde from their masters and also purchases a little farm to which they all retire. There each has his or her own particular work to do. Candide decides that the best thing in the world is to cultivate one’s garden.